'I Was Breastfeeding My Baby When I Found A Lump ... But Learning It Was Cancer Wasn't The Worst Part'
Ten years ago and Deborah Reid was in the throes of that classic 'newborn bubble' all parents can relate to.
Four months earlier she had given birth to a son, Lachlan. He was Deborah’s second child. She already had a four-year-old daughter Bella who was keeping her busy.
It was during one of Lachie’s routine feeds that Deborah first felt a lump.
“It was a little, hard, pea-sized lump on the bottom of my left breast,” she told ten daily. “It just bothered me enough to get it cleared”.
After a visit to her GP, Deborah was booked-in for an ultrasound which ended up coming back negative. “Thankfully I had a super vigilant GP who insisted I get a biopsy regardless,” she said.
That’s when everything changed.
Deborah said she knew something was wrong when her GP told her to “bring support” for the test results. They’re weren’t good.
Ductal Carcinoma In Situ
The new mother had a DCIS, which translates to a ductal carcinoma in situ, which means she had breast cancer but it hadn’t spread outside of her breast tissue.
“Getting the diagnosis was the worst part,” she said.
“Time just slowed right down. I remember everything about it – the flowers, the magazine I was reading in the waiting room – every detail is etched into my mind.”
After her diagnosis, the then 36-year-old said everything “moved really fast”, with her calendar quickly filling up with specialist appointments. “The very next day I was booked-in to see a breast cancer surgeon who scheduled me in for a lumpectomy,” she said.
Doctor Chris Pettigrew, who's the director of research investment for the National Breast Cancer Foundation, told ten daily that most surgeons will usually begin with a lumpectomy in an effort to do "everything they can to save the breast".
"The oncologist will make a decision based on each patient and seeing how the tumour looks.
"The majority of the time they will try to take out the tumour and the surrounding tissue but leave as much of the breast in tact as they possibly can," he said.
After her lumpectomy, Deborah said she given "a blue dye", which doctors told her would help them see where (and if) the cancer had spread.
'We've got bad news'
“They told me that it had spread outside the breast duct and recommended I underwent chemotherapy,” she said.
Despite most of the Sydneysider's family living in Melbourne, Deborah’s aunt and mother came up to support her through her treatment – with her mother attending every single one of her chemotherapy sessions.
“I ended up losing my hair and then lost a lot of weight. I looked like a bald skeleton,” Deborah told us with a laugh.
Her humour, however, betrays just how much her treatment took out of her. “The only way I can describe chemotherapy is … think about swimming in massive surf, you’re struggling and then finally when you come up for air you just get pushed right back down again,” she said.
During one of her appointments Deborah said she was “handed a consent form to sign” which she tells ten daily she remembered said something about a “family history” or “genes”.
It wasn’t until after she had finished her treatment that Deborah learned she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation.
Dr Pettigrew explains: "There are two genes -- BRCA1 and BRCA2 -- which are known as breast cancer susceptibility genes. Everyone has those genes, but not everyone has the gene mutations. They are both genes that involve DNA repair -- so if you have a mutation of those genes you can repair the DNA and that's how the cancer grows".
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Deborah said that learning she carried the gene was "almost worse than everything else,” she had gone through.
“I have a daughter, I have two sisters – so the spotlight then turned onto my family. What would it mean for them?”
But according to Dr. Pettigrew just because Deborah had the gene, it didn't mean the rest of her family -- including her daughter -- would inherit it.
Curiously, after both being tested, only Deborah’s older sister carried the mutation. Her younger sister was in the clear.
“My older sister pretty much had her test straight away and when it came back positive it just set off a whole chain of events for her – which were probably a lot more difficult than mine,” she explains.
"Learning I carried the gene was almost worse than everything else I had gone through. I have a daughter, I have two sisters – what would it mean for them?”
“Here she was, a healthy 39-year-old who underwent extensive surgery. But the thing that I think helped her was she already had her children – she had three boys – so she was happy just to get rid of everything”.
Deborah also underwent a complete mastectomy after her treatment, because she hated the idea of having "the shadow of cancer" over the rest of her life.
"Having the mastectomy took the shadow away," she said.
It's all in the genes
As it turns out the gene mutation didn't come from Deborah's mother's side -- but rather her father's.
"That was really weird because he’s got a brother and his mother is a single child -- so we don’t really know what went on back up his family tree," she said.
Ten years on and Deborah is proudly cancer free. She told ten daily that while she has occasionally touched upon the topic of BRCA 1 with her now 12-year-old daughter, she wants to wait until she's older to fully explain what it means to her health.
"I haven’t hidden it, but it’s never been a sit down formal conversation – it’s usually a trip in the car when I tell her we’ve got this gene in our family -- it's been a lot more casual," she said.
Both Deborah and Dr Pettigrew told ten daily the most important thing for women and men to take away from stories like this is the importance in checking yourself and getting tested if something doesn't feel right.
"Check as often as you can," Dr Pettigrew said. "If caught early, the survival rate is 91 percent."
For Dr Pettigrew, he says his mission at the National Breast Cancer Foundation is simple -- they want zero deaths from breast cancer by 2030.
"With survival rates going up we're already heading in the right direction -- but we need funding for treatments, early detection and prevention," he said.